Holiday Baking (despite the craziness)

This weekend, my weekend with the kids and a holiday weekend, we’ve done yard work, had a family outing to an old school arcade, colored Easter eggs, baked (Well, I  baked, the kids not so much.), did the Easter basket tradition, and are about to attend Mass and head to a big family dinner. Yet it somehow feels like I haven’t accomplished enough. Final exams loom, I’m about to graduate with my bachelor’s degree in biochemistry…but I’ve got one more lab write up, a homework assignment, and a final to get through first. That’s the cloud that hangs low and heavy over this weekend. (And my fairly legitimate excuse for the terribly infrequent postings around here.)

Balancing working enough to support my household of six, meeting ALL the needs, and giving time and attention to my classwork is a massive challenge, one that requires constant focus and re-calibration. Somehow I’ve gotten this far and done decently well at it. Most the time. Sometimes it makes me a less than enthusiastic parent. I’m not fostering the pre-holiday excitement or planning fancy coordinated outfits for my five  (not so) small ones like I once was. But there is one holiday tradition I’ve managed to maintain, one of my favorites, the holiday baking.

I know it seems like baking holiday treats is something I do for others…It’s not. Don’t be fooled. It’s a totally selfish thing I do. I bake what like for holidays and don’t do other things so I can get the baking I want to do done. Baking has always been a comfort thing for me. It’s a soothing ritual when I’m stressed or upset and a productive distraction when I’m bored or anxious. I think this (past) weekend I was all of the above. So I baked.

This year the emergent theme of my holiday baking was fruits and vegetables. Don’t worry though, it wasn’t healthy. I made pineapple upside down cake, carrot cake, and that blueberry cheesecake from last Easter.

Pineapple upside down cake is one of my mom’s classics. She makes it in a cast iron pan with this amazing gooey brown sugar goodness crystallized on top just under a layer of juicy baked pineapple rings. My mom usually makes this at Easter but decided we probably had enough desserts without it this year. I noticed fresh pineapples on sale on one of my many weekly grocery store runs and had seen a bundt cake pan version of the old cast iron classic that I wanted to try. And thus pineapple upside down cake was added to my baking list.  Like I said, this is selfish baking here!

Having never made my mom’s version of the cake I’m not sure how close this one was but I used a recipe found online. The melted butter and brown sugar went into the bundt pan first and then pineapple slices and cherries (which my mom never used). The cake batter gets poured over that, it’s all baked, and then flipped out. Easy peasy!

No really, this was quite easy to make. I’d recommend it. The only changes I made to the recipe were using fresh pineapple which I mashed up real good and, because I was concerned about the moisture level of the batter, an added splash of rum. I only had coconut oil on hand so rum seemed like a good balancing liquid. One of my sisters commented that the cake had a vague pina colada taste….maybe next year I’ll be sharing my magical upside down pina colada cake recipe with you all. We’ll see. šŸ˜‰

Unlike pineapple upside down cake, carrot cake is one of my favorite desserts to make (and to eat too). I started making it back in my early twenties when I was married. And, actually, carrot cake is responsible for my cheesecake baking obsession too.

My ex-husband’s birthday is in December. The first year we were married I wanted to do something fun and special for his birthday. I got tickets to a Piston’s game and planned to make his favorite dessert…but I didn’t know what that was so in the weeks leading up to his birthday I asked what kind of cake was his favorite. I swear he said cheesecake. Swear it! I had never made one before but had seen my mom make a classic New York cheesecake every year at Christmas for as long as I could remember. It never looked that hard. So I pulled out a cookbook, scanned the recipe, bought ingredients, and started a cheesecake a half hour or so before we had to leave for the game. I thought I could just whip it up and bake it real quick before we left so it would be cooled and ready to eat when we got home. It was going to be great and he was going to love it!

Except it takes way longer than half an hour to bake a cheesecake. Apparently my reading ahead and planning skills were even worse when I was 20 than they are now.

The result was a soupy mess of a cheesecake AND then, come to find out, my then new husband didn’t even like cheesecake very mush. He says he told me carrot cake was his favorite. There is no way he said carrot cake. Maybe he meant carrot cake but he said cheesecake. After that fiasco I decided I was going to master the art of cheesecakes. I’ve made many successful cheesecakes over the past sixteen years. I think I’ve succeeded. At some point after that I got a great carrot cake recipe from a co-worker and got pretty good at that too.

 

I consider it a win-win…at least as far as desserts are concerned.

 

As for the aforementioned blueberry cheesecake, I used the same recipe as last year because, despite my poor judgement on ingredient substitution, it really was a good recipe. This time I still didn’t find friache but I did use a better quality substitute: plain Fage Greek yogurt. It’s rich and creamy with a slightly sour taste and none of that cheap vanilla Greek yogurt overpowering after taste. It was super yum!

 

Oh, and I did get all my kids to dress up even if they weren’t in coordinated outfits. With a group of mostly teenagers that’s as good as it gets.

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Layers of Yumminess

Because my family is huge, crazy, and a good number of us are ADD, holiday gatherings always have an element of only slightly organized chaos. Each year around Thanksgiving (late November) someone will take the initiative to organize the sibling gift exchangeĀ  and the neice/nephew name drawing (where people from my generation get a gift for someone in the next generation). Usually someone else will start trying to pin everyone down for a day and time that all the majority of us can be together to celebrate. This year there was no one day that everyone could agree on. We have a few siblings from out of state, one in state who lives at least two hours drive from anyone else, a few who work in health care (ie have to work some holidays), and one who is a music director of a church. In other words, it’s complicated.
This year we ended up with three different Christmas gatherings, two of which are brunches. Typically I’m a bringer of desserts. Fancy cheesecakes and pies are my favorite. But those aren’t very cohesive with brunch so I had to put aside my baking preferences and adapt. Instead of Salted Caramel or Chocolate Mousse cheesecake my contribution this year was layers.
Healthy(ish) breakfast layers:

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And sweet, delicious layers:

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It might be brunch but it’s still the holidays.
Some people call those dessert bars seven layer bars, in the cook book I have they’re called Outrageous Bars. Either way they are very easy to make and super yummy with a graham cracker crumb base, sweetened condensed milk, chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, coconut flakes, and a light sprinkling of pecan pieces. My mom used to make these back when I was in elementary school. For me they taste a little bit like nostalgia too. If you need a quick dessert I highly recommend this.
The other layer thing, the breakfast one, is also extremely easy to make. Basically I oscillate between making complicated things (or maybe making things complicated) and just wanting the easiest thing possible. And I don’t have a dishwasher so the number of dishes needed can be a deciding factor. In the simple and low dish dirtying categories this one is a win.
Using an electric griddle cook frozen potatoes of your choosing (you can use fresh potatoes but that detracts from the easy aspect), once they’re all toasty and slightly browned spread them out in a 13×9 pan.

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Cheese and potatoes

Cook one or two pounds ground sausage (in same electric griddle), layer the sausage on the potatoes.Ā  Apply cheese between layers as desired. Scramble some eggs

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You've got to break a few eggs to make.... well just about anything that has eggs in it.

(again in griddle if you’re minimizing dirty dishes) for the next layer then top it off with some cheese and bake it for ten to fifteen minutes just to melt the cheese and whatnot.

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Bam! Breakfast.
The leftovers make good breakfast burritos too.